FringeReview UK 2019
Michael Buffong directs with a set designed by Anna Fleischle, and lit by Aideen Malone. Sound Design’s by Emma Laxton, with Vicki Igbokwe as Movement Director, Vocal Coach Hazel Holder, and Philip Morris Assistant Director with Liam Bunster as Design Assistant.
It starts with everyone dancing. At the end virtually no-one can speak to each other. Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s A Kind of People charts the collapse of an ethnically interconnected group of people through pressures implicitly from above.
It’s not simply a failure of multiculturalism. Divide-and-rule tactics of deprivation, cutting through safety nets, really tell. Old scars of prejudice are laid livid. Here Bhatti suggests integration is sin deep, where banked rages and years of resentment percolate. Skin – and we’re subjected to quite a few ‘funny tinge’ moments – isn’t even the first layer of racism here.
Like several fine plays recently, A Kind of People starts a uproarious comedy and ends elsewhere. We’re in the tatty-neat flat of electrical engineer Gary and Nicky Sinclair, together from their teens. There’s Gary’s sister Karen, his low-viz mate and colleague Mark and their boss Victoria who wasn’t invited and – getting offensively drunk – isn’t welcome. And Gary’s going for promotion. Awkward, particularly when Victoria demands he teach her how to twerk; and despite protestations remembers perfectly what she said when drunk.
There’s Anjum and Mo, ambitious for their child but aware their friends’ son is just that bit more gifted. Both have to pass the 11 Plus. Mo’s against private schooling, and the brilliantly-equipped Catholic one smiles tight-lipped, begging them not to ask. So Anjum, Mo, Gary and Nicky form a revision unit. They should be so solid.
Then there’s Gary’s post-interview talk with Victoria. Awkward. It worsens when two men of different ethnicity confront as racist someone who’s physically weaker. It worsens again when someone else tries intervening to mutual antagonism.
‘In this country, you go as far as they let you…. ‘ At a late stage there’s even confrontation between brother and sister about the ‘vanishing’ of Caribbeans in the UK, and antagonism with Africans. That’s quite apart from other racial tensions but Bhatti’s excoriating truthfulness allows no centring of virtue That’s the play’s great strength as it leads to desolation – though one where people might just start over with their eyes wide open, not shut.
Michael Buffong’s swift direction from joy to despair deploys a muted Mondrian-styled set of backdrops fronted by a blond wood fitted kitchen, designed by Anna Fleischle, with bright colour-coded sofas. It’s a tad more upwardly mobile than the narrative suggests. These descending backdrops block the core kitchen out for office and other scenes, though the effect’s as vertically spacious as a Wharf conversion. It’s lit by Aideen Malone with an accent on relentless neon interiors. Emma Laxton’s sound design punctuates atmosphere and storyline, with Vicki Igbokwe’s movement directon, opening lively and cleverly slowing down throughout; and Hazel Holder’s vocal coaching.
Richie Campbell and Claire-Louise Cordwell as Gary and Nicky open as the ideally-matched couple still palpably attracted after 25 years: they met when 14 and 15. Bhatti freights Gary with an excoriating sense of self-worth hard-won, ripped away at a crucial juncture. His slam-door response sets in train explosive shockwaves as each person reacts differently. Campbell simmeringly conveys just what it feels like to be awoken from a dream of equality into exactly what you feared all along: and his own intransigence rages, as logically argued as it is disastrous.
Cordwell as the wife who wants to patch everything back to how it never quite was superbly conveys her own faux-pas, well-meant desperation and Bhatti’s use of the conciliatory gambit as doomed, indeed worse, presciently levers up all the hidden dynamics between the couple, including Nicky’s estrangement from her own family. Her own crumpling arc is described by Cordwell in a denouement and aftermath that’s shattering.
Asif Khan’s Mo is one of the few who never deserts Gary, but beyond loyalty is intransigent over private education – he feels the state should provide, though he could easily afford it. He’s not given enough room to develop in this 95-minute work, though there’s a finely-etched backstory of the family shop and Khan sketches the most delicate tracery of ownership and imperative around Manjinder’s Anjum. Bhatti’s card-on-table Mo protects his son because he’s weak: a betrayal in itself. By contrast he blithely assumes his friends’ son will thrive, Elven Plus or no. Gary has an answer.
Mo’s wife Anjum Manjinder Virk has a little more room to breathe. Despite the warm bath of mutual self-help with Nicky we discover not just limits but a shocking gulph. Not simply in Mo’s declining to employ Nicky – family only, or there’d be consequences – but in the women’s relations. In Virk’s move from warm confidence to dismissal, Anjum reveals an imperative rivalry Nicky hadn’t dreamed of. Virk’s Anjum is eloquent, sharing her experience of inner freedom. Bhatti’s unflinching though – incising sharp boundaries around Anjum.
Thomas Coombes’ Mark, solid with Gary earlier on when it matters, doesn’t help him much. Bhatti perhaps too simply twists the knife in a further reveal in a different setting, but it’s a gift to Coombes in hinting new shallows to Mark. Amy Morgan’s Victoria from the start seems unsympathetic; skinning her professional mask with fears using confirmation bias in memory is skilfully done. Morgan hesitates flinch and resentment as much as Victoria’s edgy drunkenness – with blithely delivered racism – hints this flipside. Bhatti though refuses pantomime exits, at least offstage; Mark’s report back shows how no-one is untouched. Even if they’re exaggerating.
Petra Letang’s prosecco-tongued Karen as a free radical might normally centre the play, particularly as Letang’s consummate and commanding. Indeed she often attracts the greatest laughs – the audience was the liveliest I’ve seen at the Court. So Bhatti renders her the guzzler whose own relationships trail loneliness. Nevertheless she takes on with Mo an authority role at the end, a far cry from the opening. It’s another moment where Letang’s development seems numb or wanting. There’s more that could be made of five of these characters but their functions are dynamically right.
Bhatti’s depiction of how consensus splinters is acute. Even in favourable conditions, unspoken tensions and prejudice sleep fitfully. In more interesting times such as ours they waken like the Kraken. So Gary’s speech to Nicky is unanswerable: ‘Don’t you realise how this things works? If he becomes a lawyer do you reckon he’ll ever become a judge? And if he’s a doctor, he ain’t gonna be no consultant…. People might say they’re beautiful and admire their hair but they’re gonna treat them like they’re less…’ Bhatti nails this truth to the doors of injustice. It’s well we heeded it.